Tuesday 11th to Wednesday 12th December 2012.
Bolu, Istanbul, Svilengrad.
The next morning we ate from the hotel’s buffet breakfast before setting off. We dined quietly with the many business men staying in the hotel. It was all very civilized and, well, sterile and unfriendly. Back on the road we turned Bluebelle’s heating up to full in a desperate attempt to stave off the cold. We were aiming for Istanbul and Otoland Motors, Landrover specialists who came highly recommended by other overlanders. We ended up making it in good time thanks to the swish tar roads. It still feels like a luxury having such a smooth, easy path to drive on.
Istanbul met us with clean well organised streets, grand bridges, and shapely mosques standing alongside neat houses and shopping strips. Without a map or waypoints for Otoland Motors, we had to rely only on locals’ directions to find our way there. Whilst we had the address we couldn’t speak Turkish and somehow ended up being directed around in great concentric circles, getting an impromptu tour of the city in the process. Finally, after two hours of driving and not feeling any closer, Luke flagged down a taxi driver and enlisted his help to show us Otoland Motors. He was really kind, driving us in the right direction without asking for any payment.
The sun was setting over the city as we arrived at Otoland. Hakan gave us a warm welcome. He looked over Bluebelle and agreed they could replace the ‘fuel guage sender unit’ that had been broken in Sudan. We decided to get them to replace our patched up fuel tank at the same time. Unfortunately, being so late in the day, they couldn’t get it finished until tomorrow. With Bluebelle interned there for the night we were worried about how expensive a hotel in the heart of the city would be. On talking it over with Hakan hekindly suggested we could spend the night with his business partner, Ferit, and his family. Ferit spoke a little English and assured us we were most welcome so we jumped at the chance.
When he closed up the workshop for the day we all piled into his shiny new Landrover and set off towards his home in suburban Istanbul. There we met his wife, Ebru, their gorgeous little boys, Ferit’s cousins Çağla and Ayşenur, and his elderly parents who both wore the most beaming genuine smiles. We were blown away by their hospitality and the way they welcomed us with open arms. Ebru had prepared dinner for us; traditional Turkish soup followed by rice, salad, and beans. Afterwards we all sat in the lounge chatting late into the night. Çağla and Ayşenur were learning English at school and patiently translated for us all. They introduced us to Google Translate, which helped us find words they didn’t know. We felt we’d known them for ages. It was a great night with plenty of giggles.
The next morning Ebru treated us to a full Turkish breakfast. We ate platters of cured meats, intense salty cheeses, soft breads with crisp crusts of sesame seeds, and eggs freshly laid by the resident hens. After breakfast they showed us around their blooming vegetable garden, set up under an arch shaped greenhouse and next to the pigeon and chicken houses. We noticed that many homes in the neighbourhood had these in their leafy gardens, providing their families with satisfyingly home grown nutrition. With this we said a fond goodbye, hoping that we would see this lovely family again someday.
Hakan and his team met us at Otoland with warm glasses of tea and hospitality. We spent the day on leather lounges in their reception, whilst the team worked on Bluebelle. Hakan organised wifi for us to use and even asked his receptionist to order us lunch whilst we waited. Luke was a little unsure about the new fuel gauge sender unit, as it didn’t look as sturdy as our last one. It had been custom made in Turkey because they couldn’t buy a genuine Land Rover one here. They seemed to have faith in it and it was the best we could do for now so we had it fitted with the new tank. As the sun’s work day was drawing to a close Bluebelle was given the all clear and released. We said a warm farewell to Hakan, Ferit, and the guys. They were super friendly and very helpful. We would highly recommend them to any other Landy owner. We drove Istanbul’s streets amongst the peak hour traffic, marvelling at the orderliness of the traffic compared to the African cities we’ve not long visited. We stopped to pick up some Turkish delight for the journey and for Christmas. The glass cabinets in this row of shops were just stuffed to the gills with bite-size pastries, sugar soaked candies, preserved fruits, and sweets; they looked a treat. As we continued over the bridge leading west and out of the city the mosques looked beautiful all lit up and shimmering on the sea. We again found ourselves wishing that we had longer to linger and felt determined to return and explore this enchanting city properly in the not too distant future.
We drove into the night, thinking that the hotels in Bulgaria were a little cheaper than in Turkey. With the good roads, it was easy to continue and we made good ground. As we neared Edine, which is close to the border, Bluebelle spluttered to a halt. We wondered if we could possibly have air in the fuel line again, but no. We had run out of fuel! We thought we had enough to make it to the first town in Bulgaria. We had put in just a little fuel in an attempt to not spend more than we have to on Turkey’s extortionate fuel prices (nearly £2 per litre). However, the new gauge doesn’t read quite the same as our old one and it turned out we didn’t have enough after all. We had not long passed a toll gate so the best we could do was walk back and see if it were possible to get some diesel there. Well, actually, poor Luke did the walking back whilst I waited with Bluebelle. It was below freezing and to add to his dismay Luke realised he must have lost his beanie when he got out of the car at the toll gate. We pulled Bluebelle as far off the motorway as we could then with numb fingers we fumbled down one of our jerry cans. There was quite a wind whipping across the motorway, which did little to help us stay warm. The occasional passing lorry was travelling at great speed so I made Luke wear one of our high visibility jackets.
As luck would have it, not long after he’d trundled off into the freezing night a highway patrol-man drove past Luke and pulled over to offer his help. He kindly took Luke to the nearest fuel station, then stopped at the toll gate we’d passed so Luke could find his lost beanie, before depositing him back to Bluebelle and I. Though we felt like icicles, we felt like very lucky icicles.
It wasn’t long before we reached the Turkish-Bulgarian border town of Edine. The border was incredibly well organised and well signposted. Most of the counters were drive-through style, so we just followed the road and it led us through the various checks. Exiting Turkey we were surprised to find that the details logged on the computer when we entered were actually accessible by customs here. Maybe we’ve been in Africa too long?! They checked it was Luke driving Bluebelle then sent us on our way.
In Bulgaria we received a frosty welcome. The puddles had formed a thin skin of ice and the people we met weren’t very friendly. Just one petrol station attendant smiled and chatted to us. The other people gave gruff, short answers and irritated looking nods when we spoke to them. It was pretty late, so who knows, maybe they’re morning people! We had our passports checked, a quick check from customs inside Bluebelle, and then had to buy a ‘vignette’ (road tax sticker you have to display on your windscreen). As we reached the last window we met a rather sour lady who demanded “three euros”. When we asked “what for?” she bluntly retorted “disinfectant”. Bluebelle was sprayed with something as we crossed over the Bulgarian border, so we realised that must have been what it was. It seemed a sensible idea to us, especially considering where we’ve come from and the bacteria etc. that are thriving there! We paid our fee with little thanks and set off into the Bulgarian night.
The roads into Svilengrad were a contrast from the smooth tar we were treated to in Turkey. The tar seemed to be decaying and we had to dodge various cracks and potholes. The buildings too looked as if they’d seen better days. There were lots of Christmas lights adorning the apartments and streets, which brightened things up a little. We followed the signs to check out a couple of hotels, eventually settling on the wonderfully kitsch Hotel Royal. Our room was a blend of pastel pink and yellow, with absolutely everything matching shades of one or the other. The shower was a treat, hot and powerful, and the room came with free wifi. By the time we opened the door to our pastel paradise it was 1am and we were more than ready to sink into sleep.